Solar panels are more efficient than ever, with consumer options now capable of converting up to 25 percent of the sunlight that hits the cells into electricity. But those efficiency percentages assume the panels face directly at the sun, which is rarely the case during its arctic trek through the sky.
The EcoFlow Solar Tracker solves this with a self-powered, motorized robotic arm that holds your solar panels at a perfect 90-degree angle to the sun. The sensor automatically locks onto the sun from dusk to dawn, causing the two-axis machine to lift and rotate your solar panels in perfect harmony. According to EcoFlow, this results in 30 percent more energy being produced by your existing panels.
Be warned, though: this chatty robot costs $3,399. It’s also not nearly as portable as the company claims, and it got confused by clouds and reflections during my week of testing.
EcoFlow describes the Solar Robot as portable and says it “can be easily collapsed, folded and transported”. It supports the claim with a bad photoshopped image on the product page of someone who casually carries the entire assembly in one hand – no less with the fingertips. The image is a lie.
For starters, the Solar Tracker weighs 55 pounds (25 kg) without installed the panels. That makes it a job for two people to move the cumbersome robot. And even with the panel arms folded down, it’s much larger than that image would lead you to believe, measuring roughly 25.5 x 56.5 x 40 inches (65 x 143 x 101 cm).
It took me about 2.5 hours to fully assemble the Solar Tracker and adjust the arms to securely hold the EcoFlow solar panels supplied by the company for testing. You have to partially disassemble it into two parts to safely pedal the tracker up and down or transport it in a car. Fortunately, the frame that holds the solar panels can be separated from the robotic arm in just a few minutes by unscrewing a handful of finger-friendly bolts. Still, the EcoFlow Solar Tracker is about as portable as a 65-inch television; you can move it (gently) of course, but it’s not something you want to do often.
My test setup already pushed the definition of portability to its limits. I used a 35.3lb (16kg) 400W foldable solar panel from EcoFlow that measures 42 x 94.1 x 1 in (106.8 x 239 x 2.4 cm), unfolded, or 42 x 24.4 x 1 inches (106.8 x 62 x 2.4 cm) when folded a carrying case that doubles as a kickstand. That giant monocrystalline silicon panel was then connected to the robot, which fed the collected power to a 45kg portable Delta Pro battery, EcoFlow’s high-performance power plant equipped with a telescoping luggage-style handle and wheels for easier transportation. The $1,199 solar panel and $3,699 battery provide a serious power generator for those with serious off-grid power needs. the . to add $3,399 Solar Tracker to the mix makes the whole more sustainable and efficient.
The robot works excellently on sunny to mostly sunny days. The Solar Tracker comes alive as soon as the rising sun hits the elevated light sensor, causing the bot’s two-axis arm to swing the solar panel at the optimal angle to capture sunlight. This allowed the 400W panel I was using to produce between 310-330W continuous power for the Delta Pro battery the whole day without the peaks and dips of power you get from having to manually move portable panels every few hours. The robot did all the work, powered by an internal battery that is charged by the solar panel.
On cloudless days, the Delta Pro’s 3.6 kWh battery charged at about 10 percent per hour. The Solar Tracker equipped with the 400W panels can easily power a laptop, phone, portable refrigerator, fan and Starlink internet with enough energy left to keep the battery at 100 percent to keep the party going long after. the sun sets.
However, the tracking is not foolproof. Far from.
Once I watched my test robot struggle with the sun reflecting off an aluminum strip framing the adjacent building. It was only when I shielded the sensor from the reflection with my shirt that it closed on the large ball of burning plasma in the air.
The clouds also turned out to be a problem, as you can see in the timelapse below. The Solar Tracker woke up fine on this particularly sunny morning, but lost its lock on the sun a few hours later after the clouds rolled in, causing the robot to beep incessantly to let me know it was in search mode. It did this repeatedly throughout the afternoon, beeping continuously. Oddly enough, when the robot loses track of the sun, it doesn’t fall back to an estimated trajectory. Instead, he acts as if the sun has fallen from the sky and has to search the entire hemisphere to find it again, beeping all the time.
Watch the clouds roll in and defeat the sun tracker, causing the robot to scan the entire sky.
One hunt I witnessed resulted in the tracker beeping non-stop for at least five minutes at a rate of one beep per second. That beeping turned out to be so annoying during the day that two neighbors rang the doorbell to complain. (Here in Amsterdam, air conditioning is extremely rare, and open windows are the norm.) I ended up having to unplug the damn thing out of courtesy before resuming my testing a few days later after the cloudless sky returned.
The robot is programmed to beep continuously when switching on, switching off, searching for light or returning to the starting position. I know it’s for safety, to warn everyone around that the monster is on the move. But this isn’t a five-ton van that reverses blindly, and you can hear the engine even when the slow-moving robot is active. Unfortunately, it is not possible to disable the beeping manually or via the EcoFlow app. Too bad because it makes the solar tracker useless on my roof terrace, a place that could really benefit from a solar tracker and battery combination after I renovated it, saving the time and money it takes to power the room with electricity. wiring is avoided.
EcoFlow says it’s possible to add an option to control the audible alerts via a future firmware update. But if noise is a deal breaker for you, then I wouldn’t bet $3,399 on a maybe.
Other Valuable Mentions:
- According to EcoFlow, the robot can withstand wind speeds of up to 50 km/h.
- It has an IP54 rating, which means it can withstand rain and dust, but you shouldn’t hose it down.
- EcoFlow says the Solar Tracker can also be fitted with flexible or rigid solar panels from various third-party manufacturers, as long as the panel weighs less than 25kg and is less than 1.1m wide.
As a concept, I am completely sold on the ability of the Solar Tracker to optimize the conversion of sunlight that falls on solar panels into electricity. Despite EcoFlow’s claim to portability, its weight and clunky dimensions make it best suited as a semi-permanent installation in a busy workplace or remote cabin, for example. Any place where those chronic beeps won’t bother your neighbors.
The fear of solar charging for anyone going off-grid for a weekend or longer is just as real as the range fear EV owners feel. And having to constantly move portable panels to the sun all day to optimize charging is a more tiring of the elusive softness we all seek. A truly portable tracking robot that maximizes the efficiency of the portable panels used by starving vans and weekend campers would be most welcome. Unfortunately, the Solar Tracker is not, despite EcoFlow’s claims.
Photography by Thomas Ricker / The Verge